Apple Watch SE review: The best compromise between price and features
Apple's new smartwatch is a cheaper alternative to the Series 6 with just a few missing features that you may not need anyways.
Vanessa Hand OrellanaCNET Senior Editor
As head of wearables at CNET, Vanessa reviews and writes about the latest smartwatches and fitness trackers. She joined the team seven years ago as an on-camera reporter for CNET's Spanish-language site and then moved on to the English side to host and produce some of CNET's videos and YouTube series. When she's not testing out smartwatches or dropping phones, you can catch her on a hike or trail run with her family.
The Apple Watch SE is the best value smartwatch you can buy and has been awarded CNET's Editors' Choice for 2020. It doesn't have the advanced health sensors that the Series 6 offers, or the always-on display, but it has everything else we love about Apple Watch for a lot less.
Before testing out the $279 (£269, AU$429) Apple Watch SE, I was convinced I had to spend at least $120 more on the
Apple Watch Series 6
. I'm a health and
nut, so the idea of taking blood oxygen levels and an ECG from my wrist using the more expensive watch was appealing. But after wearing both the Series 6 and the SE for two weeks, I soon realized the SE did everything I needed.
The Apple Watch SE misses out on an always-on display and extra health sensors, but both of Apple's new smartwatches give high and low heart-rate notifications, come in a cellular version and have safety features like fall detection.
Raise to wake screen and processing power is fast enough
If this is your first Apple Watch, or you're upgrading from a Series 3 or earlier, all you need to know is that the screen on the Apple Watch SE is quick to wake at the flip of your wrist, simple to navigate using the digital crown and easy to see in broad daylight. It looks exactly the same as every other Apple Watch before it, with two sizes (40mm or 44mm) and the slimmer bezels that
first introduced in the Series 4. But if you're looking to upgrade from a Series 4 or Series 5, the SE won't feel like much of a step up.
The one big difference between the SE and the Series 6 (and Series 5) screens is that it doesn't have an always-on display. By the time I tested out the Apple Watch SE, I had already been wearing the Apple Watch Series 5 for almost a year. And as petty as it sounds, with the Watch SE it's hard to go back to raising my wrist to wake the screen. An always-on display makes glancing at your stats during a workout a lot easier and is something you probably won't know you need until you try it.
The Apple Watch SE is fast at opening apps, taking calls and making payments, but it can take a bit longer than the Series 6 to load some data-rich apps like the news or weather. But you're probably not going to notice unless you're comparing it directly with the more expensive watch. The SE has Apple's S5 chip, the same one found in last year's Series 5.
Watch this: Apple Watch SE and Apple Watch Series 6 comparison
New loops, familiar design
The Apple Watch SE comes in silver, gold and space gray in an aluminum finish, with no other color options like the Series 6 has, but you can spice up the look with different band options.
Apple recently released a new type of silicone band called the Solo Loop with no clasps or buckles. It stretches like a rubber band around your wrist. Because there are no overlapping parts, you can't adjust the strap once it's on, so you'll have to make sure to order the right size. Apple sent me a size 4 loop with my review unit of the Apple Watch SE, and it felt a bit snug. Had I measured my wrist before ordering, which Apple recommends, I probably would've been better off with a size up. The loop will stretch a bit over time, however, so if you're in between sizes it's probably best to go a size down. The Solo Loop costs $50 on its own, the same price as a replacement silicone sports band.
You also have more watch face options with WatchOS 7, including an Animoji and Memoji option that lets you customize your own avatar on the watch.
Apple Watch SE as a phone alternative for kids or older adults
Family Setup lets you configure a second Apple Watch for either your kids or elderly family members from a single
CNET's Scott Stein set up the Apple Watch SE for his 11-year-old son for a few weeks and said it was great for keeping in touch with his kid when out and about, but not quite as appealing as a phone -- which may actually be a good thing if you're not ready to give your kids a smartphone. Kids can still stay connected but don't have temptations like social media or web browsing that come with having a larger screen. You can program location alerts from the parent's iPhone, designate which contacts they can communicate with and limit use during certain hours with a mode called School Time.
The second watch needs to have its own phone number, so Family Setup only works with the cellular version of the
Apple Watch Series 4
or later. With that watch and the Series 5 now discontinued, that means the $329 Apple Watch SE with cellular is the cheapest way to give your kids an Apple Watch with Family Setup. And that's not exactly cheap considering the iPhone SE is only $70 more.
That said, you're also getting a health tracker as well as a communication device. Scott said that while keeping tabs on the health data of his son felt a bit weird, it could be a huge benefit when taking care of elderly family members from afar.
Fall detection and other health features
Even though the Apple Watch SE doesn't have Apple's FDA-cleared ECG or blood oxygen apps like the Series 6, it still has plenty of health features to boast about. including fall detection and heart health notifications, which can be helpful when caring for aging parents.
If the wearer has taken a hard fall and remains motionless for a certain amount of time, the watch will automatically contact emergency services and send a message with the GPS coordinates to emergency contacts.
It also lets you know if you experience an abnormally low or high heart rate, or if it detects an irregular heart rhythm that may be indicative of atrial fibrillation (aFib), a serious heart condition.
The Apple Watch even keeps track of noise levels and sends you a notification when it detects levels that could be harmful to your hearing. I've had to disable that feature because I kept getting noise alerts during bath time and bedtime when my kids were squealing or crying.
If you're over the age of 55, most of these health features will be turned on by default, but if not, you'll have to turn them on manually from the Watch app on your iPhone. The same goes if you're giving an Apple Watch to family members.
One of the best fitness trackers out there
The Apple Watch is one of my favorite fitness trackers. Its activity ring system helps keep me honest about how much (or how little) I'm moving, which has been especially hard to gauge while working at home. It also gives you monthly challenges to keep you motivated, gives you a breakdown of longer-term trends within the Activities app on your phone and calculates your cardio fitness levels using your estimated VO2 Max (maximum oxygen consumption).
It tracks over 40 different exercises including dance, yoga, swimming and hiking, and can detect some automatically so you'll still get credit even if you forget to start a workout manually. The SE also has a new always-on altimeter than tracks elevation in real time like the Series 6.
And coming soon to the Apple Watch: the new Fitness Plus app that provides guided workouts that you control from your wrist and can stream on your iPhone,
for $10 a month or $80 a year to take home workouts to the next level.
Native sleep tracking on the Apple Watch is bare-bones
With the update to WatchOS 7 in the fall, the
Apple Watch Series 3
and later can now track your sleep. Unlike other sleep-tracking wearables like the
or phone apps, the watch doesn't break down the quality of your sleep into light or deep sleep. Instead, it focuses on duration and helps you establish a better bedtime routine by prompting you to go to bed. The Apple Watch SE will also give you a breakdown of your heart rate during the night, but you'll need the Series 6 to get blood oxygen or SpO2 levels.
The Watch focuses on establishing a bedtime routine to help you wind down from the day 30 minutes before sleep that involves turning off all notifications on all your devices. This is great in theory, but it hasn't done much to help me get to bed earlier as my most productive work time is usually at night after my kids have gone to bed, so I keep disabling the sleep mode. I also haven't found the sleep information to be that helpful yet, but I can see the value in having heart rate data and eventually SpO2 data (with the Series 6) while you sleep to discuss with your doctor if you suspect you may have a sleep-related condition.
Battery life is good for a day and then some
Because the Apple Watch has always had short battery life (sometimes lasting less than a full day), I was pleasantly surprised by how much I was able to get out of the SE. While battery life hasn't improved dramatically compared with its predecessors, on most days it surpassed Apple's 18-hour claim and I was able to log a full night of sleep and still squeeze in a few extra hours of use in the morning.
This will vary depending on use, but unless you go for a very long outdoor workout, you're most likely going to make it to the end of the day with at least the 30% charge needed for tracking a night of sleep. I did a side-by-side with the Series 6 and both drained about 8% after a 30-minute outdoor jog.
The best Apple Watch with almost everything you need
If you're an iPhone user and have been debating whether or not to get an Apple Watch, this is the one you should get. The Apple Watch SE has enough health, fitness and smart features to make it worth your while, but its lower price makes it much more accessible than the flagship Apple Watch. If you do need more advanced health features, or the always-on display, you can't go wrong with the Apple Watch Series 6, which we've also reviewed. What I don't know yet is whether I can recommend buying a $300-plus Apple Watch SE for a child. My kids are still too young anyway, but if it would help keep them connected without getting them addicted to screens, then maybe it'll prove to be a worthy investment after all.
Apple Watch SE specs
Display size, resolution
1.5 in (977 sq mm), 1.7 in (759 sq mm) Retina OLED 368x448 pixels
Silver, space gray, gold
Always on display
Automatic workout detection
Yes, always on
Yes, up to 50m
Onboard, playback and streaming (with Cellular model)